Rating: 1.5 stars
In “Shock and Awe,” Woody Harrelson and James Marsden play Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, who during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 worked for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain as the only reporters willing to question the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Theirs was a righteous path, but a lonely one. In Rob Reiner’s retelling of their quest for the facts — in which Reiner plays the reporters’ heroic editor, John Walcott — Landay and Strobel are not only challenging conventional wisdom ladled out by government officials, but also contradicting such respected competitors as the New York Times and The Washington Post, while throwing a wet blanket on the patriotism that had engulfed the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But patriotism is one thing; blind nationalism another. That distinction is explored in the film by Milla Jovovich, playing Landay’s skeptical Eastern European wife, who like many of the characters in this earnest but starchy tale is saddled with windy, expository speeches that possess all the lyricism and spontaneity of a felt-tip pen squeaking on whiteboard. Working from a talky, formulaic script by Joey Hartstone (writer of Reiner’s terrific “LBJ,” in which Harrelson delivered a vivid portrayal of Lyndon Johnson), the director tries to infuse “Shock and Awe” with the taut procedural drama of “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” or “The Post.” But he winds up demonstrating just how difficult it is to make shoe-leather journalism entertaining, much less artful. “Shock and Awe” delivers loads of information that viewers may feel they already know: about the efforts of Donald H. Rumsfeld and Richard B. Cheney to use bogus intelligence to justify going to war; about how reporters, especially the Times’ Judith Miller, became credulous but crucial conduits for their circular logic; about the commercial pressures bedeviling corporate media chary of alienating readers. Unfortunately, what should unfold like a contemporary thriller instead becomes a lecture, with a story line of a young military enlistee (movingly played by Luke Tennie) added to humanize the stakes.
With the exception of a few detours into Landay’s home life and Strobel’s romantic escapades — Jessica Biel plays a girlfriend who has conveniently read up on the history of Iraq before their first date — “Shock and Awe” pretty much chronicles the reporters’ efforts to nail down their version of the WMD story, phoning and meeting with a parade of nameless, faceless officials with nicknames like “Looney Tunes” and “Loose Nukes.” By the time Tommy Lee Jones appears as veteran Vietnam correspondent Joe Galloway, Reiner’s fury has been channeled less into the spirited filmmaking of “The American President” and “A Few Good Men” than the dramatization of a well-argued op-ed.
Still, the net effect is palpable. “Shock and Awe” reminds the audience that few if any Bush administration officials were held to account for deceiving the public in any meaningful way. And, as a sobering epilogue makes clear, we’re all still paying the price. What’s more, Reiner draws a tacit but convincing line between the manipulation of the media in 2003 and the current mood of mistrust and selective facts plaguing public debate. “Shock and Awe” may not literally live up to its title, but it revisits a recent past most Americans are all too willing to relegate to ancient history, even if we do so at our peril.
R. At the ArcLight Bethesda. Contains crude language including some sexual references. 90 minutes.